The Malay lady standing on the other side of the narrow drain which separated their homes stopped scattering the rice for her chickens. She looked up and smiled. A slight breeze blew her wispy, white hair away from her face.
“Not yet,” she replied. “What did your mother cook today, Leela?”
“Chicken curry, Makcik.” Leela held the collar of the Alsatian that had come to sit next to her with a chubby hand. “Would you like some?”
The child smiled, showing her missing front teeth. She turned on her heel and skipped to the back door of the house.
Twenty minutes later, Makcik spread a straw mat on the linoleum floor of her kampung-style kitchen. Leela placed a Tupperware full of food on it and sat down, crossed-legged. She salivated as Makcik dished out some rice onto a plate and poured some of the pungent onion curry on top of the rice. She reached to take the plate from Makcik well before the older lady finished teasing the fried fish for her. Makcik gave a soft smile and tweaked her nose.
The next day, to fulfil an earlier promise made to the child, Makcik prepared her signature dish, laksa. She brought this fish-based soup and rice noodles over to Leela’s house in a Pyrex dish. This time, they sat at a dining table. Leela’s mother found bowls, some cutlery and, together, the three of them shared lunch.
Makcik died three years ago of old age. My parents and I went to the Muslim funeral and gave our condolences to the bereaved family. Strange, but the lasting memory for me, for I am Leela, is not that Makcik entered out Hindu home or that she willingly ate from our plates and drank from our cups. Indeed, our Alsatian always gave a contented sigh when Makcik petted it as she walked past. It is that neither the Tupperware nor the Pyrex dish were returned. And no one made a fuss. Then again, this was some thirty years ago.
In many ways, modern Malaysia is still the paradise touted to the world as an example of a peace-loving country where its multi-racial citizens live in harmony. However, there are subtle changes which breed discontent.
My house in Kuala Lumpur is clean and the floor swept daily; the dishes are washed, dried and put away; I can barely control my sense of pride when friends say, “Leela, your house is so clean we can eat off the floor.” Yet, I do not know who my neighbours are. All I know is that they are a Malay family. I dare not invite them for a meal in case I unintentionally insult their sensitivities; the repercussions are too heavy a burden to carry.
All said and done, I tell my friends that come next Christmas, I am going to be different. I will follow, to the very letter, every rule set out in Hinduism. This is what I can see happening.
I am invited to a Christmas party hosted by some of my colleagues. I will attend the function as it would be discourteous not to. However, once I arrive at the venue, a newly painted bungalow, I will stand by the gates as it would be most un-Hindu to participate in the celebrations of another’s religious festival. I will refuse to shake the hand of my host when he greets me because I cannot touch a man. Besides, he is of a different race and religion.
When he invites me to taste the traditional Christmas pudding, which his wife brought back from London, I will insist that I cannot take even a mouthful because it contains brandy.
Ever hospitable, my host offers me a plateful of fried noodles prepared by the caterers he hired for this occasion. Still, I will refuse. Before my host can offer more food or drink, I interject with, “Please, can I have that kotak? That packet? For drinks?”
“Huh?” My host is perplexed.
“And a paper plate? I can’t use your plates-lah.”
We know that the plates have come from these professional caterers. Still, the problem is that the plates are stacked inside my host’s house. Remember, I cannot put one foot inside this non-Hindu home.
I will sigh audibly, frustrated that my host seems doesn’t pander to my need to adhere strictly to the tenets of Hinduism. I will frown and say, exasperated, “You eat beef-lah. I also don’t drink alcohol. I hope you understand.”
Having had every bit of his hospitality thrown back in his face, I doubt my host will understand.